The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Diets - Activities, Templates, and More

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L July 08, 2022

Everything you need to know about sensory diets

What the heck is a sensory diet?

How can you use a personalized sensory diet to help your child or your clients?

We’re going to dive into the answers to these questions and more, so that you can better understand sensory processing, sensory preferences, and how to use your knowledge to create effective sensory diets!

First, we need to start with understanding sensory processing and the challenges that can arise when your body and your brain don’t process sensory information.

Once we have that covered, then we can dive into using sensory diets to help with specific sensory processing challenges.

Let’s Talk about Sensory Processing

Every single moment of every single day, you are bombarded by sensory information. From the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep, your body is constantly receiving and interpreting sensory input from your environment.

This sensory input is received through your body and decoded by your brain. Your brain tells your nervous system if the sensory input is a threat or not. Your brain is the control center that tells you what to do with all sensory information.

Everyone processes the sensory world differently. We all have a unique sensory system!

8 Sensory Systems

We all have 8 sensory systems - our 5 main ones that most of us learned about in school, plus 3 hidden senses! It’s important to understand these 8 senses and how specific sensory input affects your body and your emotions.

The Visual System

This is your sense of sight - not how well you see, but how your brain interprets the visual information in your environment. Your visual system helps you move safely through your environment, maintain your balance, locate items you want / need, and perform daily self-care tasks. Additionally, different types of visual input can be alerting (bright lights) or calming (dim lights).

Read our full article on the visual system here.

The Auditory System

This is your sense of hearing - not how well you hear, but how your brain interprets the auditory information in your environment. Your auditory system allows you to engage in conversation, listen to your favorite podcast, and maintain safety while out in the world. Different types of auditory input can be alerting (fast paced music) or calming (noise machine).

Read our full article on the auditory system here.

The Tactile System

This is your sense of touch. You have tactile receptors all over your body and even inside your mouth. Your tactile system allows you to detect danger (think of a mosquito landing on your arm), helps you understand your environment (think of the clothing you wear), and even assists with locating what you’re looking for (think of reaching into your bag without using your vision). Additionally, some types of tactile input can be alerting (tickling) and some types can be calming (massage).

You can read more about the Tactile System here.

The Olfactory System

This is your sense of smell. Your olfactory system is directly connected to your gustatory system (your sense of taste) and also assists with sensing danger. Additionally, your sense of smell is directly related to memory and emotions. Some types of olfactory input can be alerting (citrus) and some types can be calming (lavender).

Read up more on the Olfactory System here.

The Gustatory System

This is your sense of taste and as just mentioned, is directly connected to your olfactory system (your sense of smell). Your sense of taste allows you to process and understand texture and flavor, as well as temperature. Different types of gustatory input can be alerting (sour) while some types can be calming (warm).

Read up more the Gustatory System here.

The Proprioceptive System (a hidden sense)

This is your sense of movement and body position. You have receptors in your joints and muscles that tell your brain where your body is and what it's doing. This also allows you to understand how much force to use with certain tasks. Additionally, proprioceptive input is calming to the nervous system (heavy work and deep pressure). Deep pressure is also connected to the tactile system.

Read up on the Proprioceptive System here.

The Vestibular System (a hidden sense)

This is your sense of movement. Your vestibular system is located in your inner ears, therefore whenever your head moves, you activate your vestibular system. Additionally, this is directly connected to your visual system. Vestibular input is typically alerting (spinning, jumping) and can oftentimes be over-stimulating, meaning it is too much for the body and can cause an adverse reaction (such as nausea, irritability, or dizziness). Some types of vestibular input can be calming and regulating, such as slow linear swinging. It is often recommended to complete a proprioceptive (deep pressure or heavy work) task after a vestibular task in order to decrease any possible negative reactions.

You can read more about the vestibular system here.

Interoception (a hidden sense)

This is your sense of internal processing - hunger and thirst, needing to use the bathroom, when you feel sick, feeling tired, emotional regulation, etc. Interoception allows you to understand how you’re feeling in any given moment as well as helps you to meet your basic needs.

You can learn more about interoception here.

Successful sensory processing includes processing and modulating all different types of input. This means that all 8 of your sensory systems are working efficiently in order to allow you to get through your day successfully. Occasionally something may happen that causes a challenge, such as being in a very noisy environment that causes you to feel uncomfortable. When this happens, you likely use a strategy to help - maybe you leave the room for a couple of minutes. You likely use a variety of sensory strategies throughout the day without even realizing it because it comes naturally!

Sensory Processing Challenges

Sensory processing challenges occur when the signals between the body and the brain get mixed up or aren’t received properly. This causes the brain to think that something is wrong, thus producing a physical and/or emotional reaction that doesn’t fit the situation.

Oftentimes children with diagnoses of autism, ADHD, or other learning disabilities or developmental delays struggle with sensory processing. Additionally, there are children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) who specifically struggle with processing the sensory world.

According to the Star Institute, “Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don't get organized into appropriate responses.”

Unfortunately, SPD is not a recognized diagnosis in the DSM-5… yet! We are hopeful that one day it will be. However, it’s important to note that anyone can have sensory processing challenges without an official diagnosis.

Child with SPD

If you'd like to learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, we wrote a longer post breaking it down: The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder.

A true sensory processing challenge is not something that is just a phase or something that a child will just “grow out of.” It’s something that happens every time. Every day. And it causes difficulties for the entire family! At this point, you probably know if your child has a few sensory quirks or if they have true sensory processing challenges!

For our children, these challenges might look like:

  • Inability to transition between activities, resulting in frequent meltdowns
  • Challenges attending for an age-expected amount of time to an age appropriate task
  • Difficulty with self-care tasks, resulting in meltdowns and consistent avoidance
  • Challenges in social situations due to poor emotional regulation or anxiety
  • Difficulty tolerating certain types of sensory input, such as clothing textures, food textures, or movement
  • Constant seeking out of certain sensory input, causing disruption in daily routines and inability to attend to age appropriate tasks

You may already know your child’s specific sensory challenges. They likely have more than one area of difficulty and those difficulties are likely in different sensory systems. Your child may be over-responsive to tactile and auditory input, while simultaneously craving vestibular input AND showing signs of dyspraxia and postural disorder! This is where it can feel overwhelming!

But keep reading - next we’ll dive into sensory preferences and how you can use those preferences to create a personalized sensory diet!

Sensory Preferences

We all prefer certain types of sensory input, while we also dislike other types of sensory input. For example, the author of this article prefers soft blankets, fidget items, and sour candy while also disliking loud, unexpected noises.

It’s important to fully understand your own sensory preferences before you help your child - this will help you empathize with their specific needs! Ask yourself these questions (and try to expand on them!) to identify YOUR sensory preferences:

  • What type(s) of movement do you enjoy? Fast or slow?
  • What type(s) of movement do you dislike? Do you get motion sickness?
  • What type of proprioceptive input do you enjoy? Heavy work such as working out? Or deep pressure such as a massage?
  • What type of tactile input do you enjoy? Do you prefer soft materials or coarse materials? Do you enjoy physical contact with your loved ones?
  • What type of tactile input do you dislike? Do you hate being tickled? Do you dislike certain types of clothing, such as jeans or wool?
  • Do you notice when you are thirsty and hungry? Are you able to correctly identify if you’re not feeling well?
  • What type of auditory input do you enjoy? Do you prefer loud, fast paced music or slow, classical music?
  • What type of auditory input do you dislike? Do you hate large crowds because it’s so noisy? Do you become irritated with repetitive noises?
  • What type of visual input do you enjoy? Do you prefer to look at brightly colored items or do you prefer dimmed lighting?
  • What type of visual input do you dislike? Does being in the sunshine hurt your eyes? Do you struggle to locate items within a busy environment?
  • What types of tastes and smells do you enjoy? Do you love sour and spicy foods?
  • What types of tastes and smells do you dislike? Do you struggle to tolerate certain smells in certain environments (say, a public restroom)?

Once you’ve identified your sensory preferences, it’s time to identify your child’s sensory preferences! You can use the same questions that you used, or you can use a Sensory Preference Checklist from Sensational Brain! This will help you determine which activities to incorporate into your child’s sensory diet! The activities that your child craves and seeks out - those will definitely be in the sensory diet!

Meeting the Sensory Threshold

The sensory threshold is the point at which you respond to sensory stimuli. For some sensory input, you may need only a small amount before you react. For other types of sensory input, you may need more in order to react. It all depends on your sensory preferences!

Check out our video on Meeting the Sensory Threshold


 

Once you’ve identified your child’s sensory preferences, you will better understand which activities to complete at the beginning of the sensory diet in order to meet their sensory threshold!

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence plays a role in successful sensory diets!

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and control one’s emotions, as well as to identify emotions in others. This skill is learned and refined throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Identifying and connecting sensory activities with emotions is vital to helping your child understand their body and how to regulate themselves.

Start with modeling this:

During a specific activity, verbalize how the activity makes you feel. Ask your child questions, such as, “Can you see how I’m feeling?” Talk about facial expressions and body language cues. Then, start identifying your child’s emotions during activities. A simple comment such as, “It looks like swinging makes you feel happy; you’re smiling while you do it!” Next, ask your child questions about how they feel during specific activities. “Does jumping on the trampoline make you feel happy or sad?” Oftentimes, children with sensory processing challenges may respond with, “I don’t know!”

This is where you will need to stay consistent in identifying how you think they feel and ask if it’s correct.

During challenging moments when your child is upset, it’s important to give them space before talking about emotions. If your child has a meltdown, wait until they are calm again to talk about the situation. Additionally, be sure to avoid any shaming for their emotions. Try something like, “I noticed you seemed very angry; you were yelling very loud. Do you know why you felt that way?” This is a great opportunity to start identifying strategies - if swinging helps your child feel happy, you can talk about using swinging as a strategy the next time they are upset.

This takes patience, consistency, and empathy!

How to Build a Sensory Diet

A sensory diet is a series of personalized, sensory-based activities and/or strategies utilized at certain times of the day, during certain activities, and with transitions in order to help your child feel calm, ready to learn, and in control of their body.

You will begin with meeting their sensory threshold - providing them with the sensory input their body is craving / seeking. Then you will incorporate other types of sensory activities (we like to incorporate as many sensory systems as possible!) in order to help your child’s body and brain organize and regulate.

Sensory diets are all very personalized and what works for one child may not work for another. Additionally, different children will benefit from sensory diets at different times/parts of the day.

One child may benefit from a morning sensory diet to help them feel awake and ready to go to school, while another child may benefit from an afternoon sensory diet to help them feel calm after a busy day at school. Sensory diets are also great to incorporate into transitions, specifically if your child struggles with transitions!

Before you jump into the next section, where you’ll find a list of sensory-based activities, make sure you’ve:

  • Identified your child’s sensory preferences
  • Identified when your child will utilize their sensory diet

Sensory Diet activities should:

  • Be goal directed
  • Incorporate specific “stops” and “starts”
  • Incorporate a variety of sensory input including movement and heavy work
  • Incorporate other senses such as touch, taste, scent, hearing
  • Be choice based - allow the child to choose preferred sensory tasks
  • Utilize a visual tool or schedule

Sensory Diet Activity Lists

The following list is not a full, complete list. There are many more sensory activities that you can try with your child.

Always watch for signs of overstimulation and negative reactions. These can appear immediately or hours later (especially with vestibular input).

  • Excessive dizziness
  • Nausea (during or afterwards)
  • Flushed skin
  • Inability to calm afterwards
  • Irritability

It’s recommended to follow up vestibular activities with calming proprioceptive activities to help decrease overstimulation.

Check out our video on Our 5 Favorite Strategies for Sensory Overload


Vestibular Activities

  • Rolling / bouncing on a therapy ball
  • Swings
  • Trampoline
  • Log rolling and somersaults
  • Cartwheels
  • Spinning

Check out our video on the Top 5 Vestibular Activities and Why We Love Them


Proprioceptive Activities

  • Jumping jacks and cross crawls
  • Trampoline / jump and crash
  • Riding a bike / scooter
  • Animal walks
  • Ball walk-outs
  • Steamroller

Check out our video on the Top 5 Proprioceptive Activities and Why We Love Them


Visual Activities

  • Infinity loop drawing
  • Mazes
  • Lava lamp
  • Calm down bottle
  • Matching games

Check out our video on the Top 6 Visual System Activities


Auditory Activities

  • The Listening Program
  • Metronome games
  • Classical or upbeat music
  • Over-the-ear headphones

Check out our video on Auditory Processing & Our 5 Favorite Activities


Tactile Activities

  • Sensory bin
  • Massage
  • Vibration
  • Fidgets
  • Slime / play-doh

Check out our video on the Top 5 Tactile Processing Activities

 

Gustatory, Olfactory, and Oral Motor Activities

  • Essential oils
  • Sour or spicy candy
  • Drinking from a straw
  • Chewy, crunchy, resistive foods
  • Gum
  • Bubble mountain
  • Chewy tools and vibration

Check Out Our 6 Favorite Olfactory and Gustatory Activities


 

Use Visuals

You’ve identified your child’s sensory preferences. You’ve chosen the activity(or activities) to use at the beginning of the sensory diet to meet your child’s sensory threshold. You’ve chosen 2-3 more activities to include as well. Now, it’s time to decide how you want to present the sensory diet to your child!

If your child is able to, incorporate specific explanations for why you’re trying a sensory diet. Be sure to use positive language. Instead of - “we’re doing this sensory diet because you can’t focus,” try - “we’re going to try this sensory diet and see if it helps you feel happy and calm and ready to focus!”

Now, choose how you’re going to follow the sensory diet! Will you use a checklist of each activity? Will you write the activities on paper or a white board? Will you use pictures of each activity? No matter the method, it’s recommended that you use visuals!

Ultimately the way you and your child create and follow your sensory diet is entirely up to you! Visuals are a great way to stay organized, to see what’s coming next, and provide a sense of accomplishment once it’s finished.

You can download a free template here https://harkla.co/pages/freebies

Final Thoughts

A Sensory Diet is designed to give the child the input they need, at different times throughout the day for specific activities -- school, homework, meal time, and bedtime. The idea is to incorporate these different physical and sensory activities into the daily routine, throughout the day.

They need to be fun and motivating to the child -- so the child doesn’t refuse but instead feels HAPPY and CONFIDENT. We want the child to recognize how great they feel when they are regulated and how beneficial these activities are for them.

Frequency is important to help the child’s sensory system maintain that “just right” state while also not getting overloaded. Keep track of how your child’s affect changes. Are they more focused? More dysregulated?

Intensity of various activities depends on the child and how much input their body needs.

Make sure you’re working to reach your child’s sensory threshold! If they’re jumping off the walls and seem out of control, give them a structured activity that gives them that same input, rather than implementing an activity to try to calm them down.

Their sensory system is telling them that they need more input, more jumping, running, crashing, etc. Once you’ve provided the sensory input and met their threshold, then you can implement more of the ‘just right’ or ‘calm down’ activities to regulate their system.

We suggest trying one sensory diet consistently for 2 weeks before modifying it or giving up completely.

For more in-depth information on sensory diets, make sure to check out our podcast and our Sensory Diet Digital Course.

The following books are also a must read. They are full of helpful information and activity ideas:

  • The Out of Sync Child
  • The Out of Sync Child Has Fun

Before you start implementing a sensory diet, we HIGHLY recommend consulting with an Occupational Therapist.

If your child’s sensory challenges are impeding their ability to get through daily tasks, they could benefit from the resources an OT has to share with you.

    Here’s a list of some of our favorite products we use during sensory diets:

    • Move Your Body Fun Deck Cards
    • Sensory Diet Flash Card Deck
    • Upper Body and Core Strength Flash Cards
    • Yogarilla Exercises and Activities
    • Yogarilla Fun Deck
    • Arks Z-Vibe Single
    • Arks Z-Vibe Kit
    • Body Sock Sensory Sack
    • Bean Bag Chair
    • Compression Pants
    • Compression Shirt
    • Chewy Lego Chew Necklace
    • Harkla Hug
    • Lycra Tunnel
    • Textured Chewy
    • Too Tarts Sugar Free Sour Candy Spray
    • Warhead Super Spray Candy
    • Therapy Ball
    • Weighted Vest
    • Weighted Blanket
    • Vibration Ball
    • Spot It
    • Vibrating Ankle Bands
    • Painters Tape - yes painters tape! There are tons of ways to stimulate the senses with this one product. We have a Mini Activity course that helps.

    For more in-depth information on sensory diets, make sure to check out our podcast and our Sensory DietCrash Course.

      Helpful Sensory Diet Resources and Tools

      Creating Sensory Diet Cards

        We love using the Brainworks Sensory Diet creator tool to make specific Sensory Diets for our clients. Simply drag and drop the sensory diet picture card, print, laminate, add velcro dots, and you have yourself a sensory diet! They also have pre-packaged and printed resources to use as well! Here’s a free webinarto help get you started!

        Sensory Diet Checklist

        Keep in mind, your child can have severe adverse reactions to sensory activities without knowing what their sensory needs are. Here’s a simple sensory diet checklist you can fill out to learn more about their unique sensory preferences… and yours too!

        Sensory Challenges Quiz

        Unsure if your child has sensory challenges or not?

        We created this Sensory Challenge Quiz to see if your child may have sensory challenges which a sensory diet may help with!

         

        Sensory Diet Digital Course

        If you're really ready to dive deep on Sensory Diets then our sensory diet course is a great place to start.

        We run you through the different types of sensory inputs and how to tell which one your child needs right now. This is the best way to start implementing a personalized sensory diet at home for your child.

        Or, if you're an OT, COTA, or educator looking to expand your sensory toolbox, this course is very helpful for that!

        Click here to learn more about the Sensory Diet Course!

         

        Want to Dive Deeper? Listen to Our Podcast Episode on Sensory Diets

        Listen & Subscribe on Your Platform of Choice:

        Don't miss this helpful video about our 5 Step Recipe for a Sensory Diet


         

        Related Sensory Articles on Harkla

        If you found this article useful, you may like our other articles about Sensory Processing Disorder:

         

        Jessica Hill, COTA/L
        Jessica Hill, COTA/L

        Rachel Harrington, COTA/l, AC and Jessica Hill, COTA/L are Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA). They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. They specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica and Rachel are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica and Rachel, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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